Despite not having the notoriety amongst travelers that destinations like Rio de Janeiro or Florianopolis enjoy, Curitiba, Brazil, has been getting some buzz lately. It is widely considered to be one of the nicest places to live in Brazil and is a popular endpoint for migrants from around the country. After mainstream publications like Readers Digest began to draw attention to this pleasant metropolis, tourists from north of the equator started to take notice.

A combination of environmental awareness and progressive urban planning has also made Curitiba one of South America’s greenest urban destinations. Both the World Mayors' Summit on Climate and the Green City Index give a nod to Curitiba, calling it the greenest city in Latin America. An award-winning bus rapid transit system that has been copied in other parts of the world, and more than 500 square feet of green space per resident (1.75 million residents within the city limits and more than 3 million in the metro area) may make people question why this city hasn't overtaken troubled metropolises and become Brazil's tourism showcase.

Go green

Curitiba has one of the most enviable and simple public transportation systems in the world. It consists entirely of long buses with three connected cars that circulate around the city, stopping at tube-shaped stations to pick up passengers. This is a safe, clean and effective way to travel, though it can get crowded during rush hour because a majority of the city's population relies on the buses. Tourist buses also circulate on a fixed route in between major attractions. Curitiba is safer than notorious Rio, but it is still best to travel by taxi at night and avoid the buses. Bus fares are only $1.15, with tourist bus passes starting at $9. Curitiba is also home to a 15-block stretch of pedestrian-only roadway.

See green

The Botanical Garden of Curitiba, on the campus of the Federal University of Parana, is a major attraction for eco-tourists and mainstream tourists alike. The garden has a large native forest as well as a greenhouse that covers more than 4,800 square feet. Specimens are also preserved in the Botanical Museum, which attracts researchers and academics from around the world.

Curitiba melds culture, history and nature at several parks around the city. The German Wood, for example, is a cultural park that has about 7 1/2 acres of native forest as well as features meant to highlight the influence of German immigrants on the city. Aside from the native flora, attractions include a replica wooden church, a path that features displays from the Grimm Brothers fairy tales and a wooden observation deck. The Portugal Wood features a similar focus on culture with a path beside a brook that leads to tiles with quotes from the works of famous Portuguese poets. More natural and cultural parks around the city represent other ethnic groups that played an important role in Curitiba (among them Japanese, Ukrainian, Italian and Arab).

Iguaçu Park is another notable green space in Curitiba. The largest urban park in Brazil, it has a handful of ecological zones and a zoo that prides itself on keeping its habitats as close to authentic as possible for its 80 species. This park should not be confused with Iguaçu National Park, which sits in Parana state on the border with Argentina.

Ambitious eco-tourists could spend days or even a couple of weeks exploring the green urban landscapes without leaving the city limits. Plenty also awaits those who venture outside the city. The Serra Verde Express tourist train runs on a historic railway between Curitiba and Paranagua, passing some of the most scenic mountain landscapes in southeastern Brazil. The passenger cars are restored versions of the original trains, which traveled the route to the state capital of Curitiba more than a century ago.

Local food and crafts are the stars of the Feirinha do Largo da Ordem , an open-air market that takes place Sunday mornings in the center of Curitiba. This is a great place to get a taste of Curitiba's culture: Vendors sell paintings and sculptures and there are musical and cultural performances.

The Wire Opera House , part of another major park, Pedreiras Park, is an open-air venue that hosts highbrow entertainment throughout the year. Visitors can enjoy the lakes, trees and surrounding landscapes as well as the performance.

Sleep green

Hotels in Curitiba seem to be more plugged in to the environmental movement than hotels in other cities. This is the case at the Curitiba San Juan Royal Hotel . This four-star venue uses fresh, locally grown and organic foods in its in-house restaurants.

The Curitiba Eco-Hostel is an inexpensive option for those who don't mind shared rooms and a youthful clientele. The hotel was built with wood harvested during a reforestation project, water is heated using solar energy and it has a rainwater collection system. Staff can arrange trips to area attractions.

Curitiba's Slaviero Hotel is part of a national chain that has come up with an ingenious and profitable way to combat the use of plastic bags in Brazil. The chain's Conscious Style Project brought together a group of artists from around Brazil who have designed a line of eco-friendly, reusable bags that will be sold at the hotels under the Slaviero banner. All proceeds will be donated to the Projeto Florestas do Futuro (Future Forests Project).

Eat green

Eating organic is not difficult in Curitiba. Parana, the state of which Curitiba is the capital, is at the forefront of Brazil's organic food movement and one fourth of the companies that are part of the nationwide program called OrganicBrasil are based here. Though a lot of the crops produced without the use of pesticides are exported, there are places in the city to find these natural eats. The best is the appropriately named Organic Market of Curitiba . Surplus food produced in and around the city is given to local residents in exchange for waste that they collect.

Green Life is one of Brazil's best vegetarian buffets. It features non-meat versions of Brazilian favorites and has a huge salad bar. It is open for lunch only, but food can be bought to-go (the price is figured by weight). Green Life is the most publicized veggie buffet, but the city has plenty of other natural and non-meat options , including All Natura, which emphasizes macrobiotic dishes.

Curitiba is a model city in several respects. Its transportation system is simple, green and innovative and it is a leader in the movement to make the country's agricultural industry organic. Tourists often find such progressive cities to be sterile and void of culture and excitement. Curitiba, however, has a strong sense of its past and its future and is intent on maintaining these elements while it builds a more livable city.

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.

Thumbnail photo: Jeff Belmonte /Flickr

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Curitiba, Brazil: Destination of the week
Efficient public transportation, a vibrant organic scene and plenty of eco-conscious hotels make this Brazilian city worth a visit.